WW2 Treasure Hunters – Season 2 – Prideaux Place ‘Americans in Cornwall’

The season finale of season 2 of WW2 Treasure Hunters looked at the American soldiers stationed in Cornwall, just prior to D-Day. It was one of those digs that we hoped for a great many things, but it wasn’t until the last 5 minutes of the dig that an incredible item was recovered. Up until then, we had very little to show for our efforts. However, it is sometimes just that one little find that brings the story together. We wanted to tell the story of how the black GIs were treated differently to the white, and this find, coupled with a name we found on an old wardrobe, did just that.

Despite there being very few finds in this episode, the story we told brought home the sacrifice of those brave GIs, fighting a war thousands of miles from their home.

Pictures of the finds are at the bottom of this blog. First, a bit of background about the two men. Corporal Lawrence Bekelesky, 121st Engineer Combat Battalion, and PFC Sylvester Johnson, 3544 QM Truck Company, (part of the famed ‘Red Ball Express’).

121st Engineer Combat Battalion

The 121st Engineer Battalion was originally organized as the 5th Infantry Regiment, D.C. National Guard in August 1918.  In 1922 the 5th was re-designated as the 121st Engineer Regiment, D.C. National Guard. The regiment, under command of Colonel Oehman, was inducted into Federal service at Fort George G. Meade, Maryland on 3rd February 1941, as the engineer regiment organic to the 29th Infantry Division.  From induction date through August 1941 the regiment participated in basic training.

During the period 1st January 1943 and 6th June 1944 the battalion participated in diversified engineer training and physical conditioning to prepare them for the invasion of the European continent.  During the period the battalion was stationed at several installations in England.  A brief resume of those stations follows:

Tidworth Barracks -10th Oct 42

Paignton, Devonshire – 29th May 43

Wadebridge, Cornwall – 27th Nov 43 (HQ, 121st)
Harlyn Bay, Cornwall – 27th Nov 43 (Company A 121st)
Padstow, Cornwall – 28th Nov 43 (Company B 121st)
Trevone Bay, Cornwall – 27th Nov 43 (Company C 121st)

The 121st Engineer Combat Battalion, less Company A, with the 112th Engineer Combat Battalion attached, landed on Omaha Beach with the 116th Infantry Combat Team.  The 116th Infantry Combat Team was a part of the 1st Infantry Division Landing Team.  Two platoons of Company B, 121st Engineer Battalion, accompanied by the battalion commander, were the first elements to hit the beach.  Time of the landing was 0710, 6th June 1944, (It was during this landing that Cpl Bekelesky is thought to have been killed). The remainder of the battalion, less Company A landed 10 to 40 minutes later.  The landing was made under heavy mortar, artillery, and machine gun fire as no infantry units preceded the engineer landing on Dog Green and part of Dog White Beaches.  Approximately 50% of the initial landing forces were casualties and 75% of the accompanying equipment was lost.  The battalion regrouped as quickly as possible and proceeded inland to accomplish its’ mission of clearing routes of communications of obstacles.

Red Ball Express

The Red Ball Express was a famed truck convoy system that supplied Allied forces moving quickly through Europe after breaking out from the D-Day beaches in Normandy in 1944. To expedite cargo shipment to the front, trucks emblazoned with red balls followed a similarly marked route that was closed to civilian traffic. The trucks also had priority on regular roads.

Conceived in an urgent 36-hour meeting, the convoy system began operating on August 25th, 1944. Staffed primarily with African-American soldiers, the Express at its peak operated 5,958 vehicles that carried about 12,500 tons of supplies a day. It ran for 83 days until November 16th, when the port facilities at Antwerp, Belgium, were opened, enough French rail lines were repaired, and portable gasoline pipelines were deployed.

Use of the term “Red Ball” to describe express cargo service dated at least to the end of the 19th century. Around 1892, the Santa Fe railroad began using it to refer to express shipping for priority freight and perishables. Such trains and the tracks cleared for their use were marked with red balls. The term grew in popularity and was extensively used by the 1920s.

The need for such a priority transport service during World War II arose in the European Theatre following the successful Allied invasion at Normandy in June 1944. To hobble the German army’s ability to move forces and bring up reinforcements in a counter-attack, the Allies had pre-emptively bombed the French railway system into ruins in the weeks leading up to the D-Day landing.

After the Allied breakout and the race to the Seine River, some 28 Allied divisions needed constant re-supply. During offensive operations, each division consumed about 750 tons of supplies per day, totalling about 21,000 tons in all. The only way to deliver them was by truck – thereby giving birth to the Red Ball Express.

At its peak, it operated 5,958 vehicles and carried about 12,500 tons of supplies per day. Colonel Loren Albert Ayers, known to his men as “Little Patton,” was in charge of gathering two drivers for every truck, obtaining special equipment, and training port battalion personnel as drivers for long hauls. Able-bodied soldiers attached to other units whose duties were not critical were made drivers. Almost 75% of Red Ball drivers were African Americans. The 3544 QM Truck Company was one of those companies essential to the operating of the Red Ball Express, and manned entirely by black GIs.

Sylvester Johnson was definitely part of this vital supply system, and his company were also known to be in Belgium at the time of the Battle of the Bulge. It is quite conceivable that he fought alongside his fellow white GIs during this time, as it is well known that the black GI companies were thrust into battle during the fierce fighting of December 1944.

 

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A view of just a few of the crosses at the American cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer, Normandy.
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A view of just a few of the crosses at the American cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer, Normandy.
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A view of just a few of the crosses at the American cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer, Normandy.
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The view from Coleville-sur-Mer US cemetery down on to Omaha beach
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The cross marking the last resting place of Lawrence Bekelesky
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Cpl Lawrence Bekelesky
Bekelesky enlistment record
Lawrence Bekelesky enlistment record
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Remains of a hut at the camp where Sylvester Johnson was stationed just prior to D-Day, near Holsworthy.
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Remains of a hut at the camp where Sylvester Johnson was stationed just prior to D-Day, near Holsworthy.
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Sylvester Johnson’s gravestone, Dayton National cemetery, USA
SJ enlistment record
Sylvester Johnson’s enlistment record

 

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The mess tin found at the site of the 3544 QM Truck Company camp, in the middle of being cleaned, revealing the name stamped into the back
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Close up of the name and last 4 digits of the service number of Sylvester Johnson

 

On to the finds from Prideaux Place, home to the 121st Engineer Combat battalion.

 

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The team!
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A lot of the finds we couldn’t attribute to the US ‘occupation’ of the house and grounds…..
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…but some were definitely from the US soldiers!
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30cal cartridges and a couple of 303s
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Headstamp on the 30cal shown in the episode. Note the light strike on the cap. A misfire!
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Headstamp on one of the 303s recovered
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Remains of a penkife, 30cal bullets and a cigarette rolling machine
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Close up of the cigarette rolling machine
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Coins
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Coins
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Coins
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US issue army boot
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Another penknife, RA button, Naval button and a 9mm bullet

 

That was a lot of digging for not many finds, especially when you consider we had 10 metal detectorists scour the area for a whole day!

When you consider that the item that made the whole show was found in the last five minutes of filming, it makes it all the more remarkable. AND……everyone except myself and Catherine (producer/director/camera operator), had gone home! My luck held out to find this fabulous US army mess tin lid…..

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One comment

  1. Interested in the part about Prideaux place, we had access to the rooms where the121st were billeted about 15 -20 years ago. Found lots of personal items still left when they went off for the invasion. I put the best in a shadow bits for display in the house, not sure if it ever was displayed. Have a few bits still at home!

    Liked by 1 person

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